At first, it looked as though Charley was not going to make it to our town. We were all hoping that was true, no one wanted to see him. For several days, we all had been halfheartedly going through the motions of getting ready just in case he had a last minute change in his itinerary.
In a very short time, Charley’s reputation for being a “blowhard” had gradually increased to the point that not one individual living on the west coast of Florida wanted him to visit their town. He was mean spirited and a threat to our laid-back lifestyle, there was no doubt he would wreak havoc on our tranquil little chunk of paradise.
Unfortunately, because of his tenacity no one had found a way to prevent Charley from visiting. His brief stopover would be far worse than having your in-laws show up unexpected and way messier than a weekend gathering of your son’s teenaged friends. No, Charley was like the proverbial bull in a china shop and everything he touched would be destroyed.
It was August 13th, 2004 and I remember it as though it was yesterday…it was Friday the 13th, which was not a good omen. My wife Ann and I were sitting in our breakfast nook enjoying our first cups of coffee and perusing the morning paper. We were both in a pretty good mood because the last thing we had heard, Charley was sticking to his itinerary and we would not have to set eyes on the “blowhard”. We had spent all day yesterday getting ready just in case he did want to drop in, so we were covered either way. However, based on what we had just learned, we were truly happy not to have to face the old windbag.
We ran some errands and were back home by lunchtime. As we sat down to eat, we flipped on the television to catch up on the latest news and weather. It was then that we learned Charley’s itinerary had changed. Charley was coming to town that afternoon. No sooner did the news sink in, the phone began to ring. One by one, our neighbors were calling asking if we heard the news. Everyone was devastated, everyone was afraid of Charley, no one wanted to come face to face with his stormy personality. Charley would definitely not be welcomed into our neighborhood.
As we finished up some last minute tasks, I noticed the wind had picked up some and the sky was full of angry clouds. Charley’s whirlwind tour was approaching…oh how I dreaded meeting up with Charley.
Around one o’clock that afternoon, Charley the hurricane was upgraded to a category three storm and some thirty minutes later, he was upgraded again to a category four storm. At that point it was too late to even consider leaving and all weather advisories were saying “If you haven’t left the area, seek shelter and stay put…do not attempt to evacuate unless you are in immediate danger.” I was wishing we had evacuated, but the whole neighborhood was staying so we opted to ride it out with them.
We had installed our storm shutters several days ago and replaced the double front entry doors with steel storm doors. We did not shutter the rear doors, which were located in the somewhat protected lanai area. Those doors would provide additional emergency exit routes should the need arise.
As the wind speed and the “roar” of the storm increased, I was anything but calm, cool, or collected. Ann and I discussed our options and came up with a plan if we were forced to leave. We had all our important papers, irreplaceable items, and the computer ready to load in our vehicles at a moment’s notice. We reviewed how to open and close the garage door if the power was knocked out. Both vehicles had full tanks of gas and were ready to go if we needed them, but in the end, we decided we would be safer riding together in the SUV.
There was nothing left to do except sit in the eerie dark confines of our storm-shuttered home. The noise was unbelievable and as we were watching the local weather report, our cable television signal ceased to exist and we were left staring at a blank screen.
As the wind velocity continued to increase, we could hear the trusses holding up our roof moaning and groaning. It sounded like any second the roof would go flying off to Oz. Being cooped up in a dark house, listening to all the odd noises and not being able to see what was going on outside was driving me crazy. Finally, I could not stand it any longer, I grabbed my camera and went outside and stood in our lanai area.
The noise from the wind and rain was deafening. Even though I was standing in the somewhat protected lanai area, when I tried to snap some pictures I found it hard to hold the camera steady. Just as I was about to give up and head back inside, I heard a loud snap and turned in time to see the south end of our pool cage crashing down on the deck.
When I looked at the houses surrounding ours, I was able to see that three of them were missing all or a good part of their pool cages. As I continued surveying the area, several large pieces of our neighbor’s pool cage went whizzing by at a high rate of speed. It took about two seconds for that to register before I was running for the door. No, it was definitely not safe for me to be out in the storm.
Once I was back inside, I immediately noticed two things, one good, one bad. The good thing was Ann had a small portable television tuned to one of the local stations so we could keep track of the storm. The bad thing was she had several large plastic buckets in her hand and one was already sitting on the floor collecting water. When I looked at the kitchen ceiling, water was dripping from the can lights.
In my mind, I was pretty sure we had lost part of our roof. There was no doubt that I would have to make another trip outside to determine the extent of roof damage. As I left the house and walked around to the far side of the swimming pool, I could hear our cage creaking and see it moving slightly with each wind gust. As I looked through the top of our cage at the roof area above the kitchen I was totally dumbfounded. There was absolutely no roof damage. The roof was completely intact. At that point, it was anyone’s guess as to how the rainwater was getting into our house.
As much as I wanted to run back inside, I stood and watched the rain hitting our roof. It took a few minutes, but suddenly a big gust of wind gave me the solution. As the heavy rain was running down the roof, strong wind gusts were blowing it back up the roof and into a vent that was installed just below the roof peak. I now had my answer, but at the same time, I was painfully aware nothing I could do would remedy the problem. On the plus side, once the eye of the hurricane passed north of us, the wind would switch direction and the leak would stop. I made my way back to the safety of our home.
Once again, the wind velocity seemed to increase and we heard a loud banging noise followed by a ripping sound all coming from the south facing roof angle, which was above the master bedroom.
The rain had eased off some, so I headed outside to see if I could find out what happened. I took advantage of the open end of the pool cage to ease out far enough to get a look at the roof. The south facing portion of our solar pool heater no longer existed. There was nothing left but a few strips of the mat and some odd pieces of pipe. From what I could see, the roof itself was still intact with the exception of a few shingles here and there.
While I was checking the roof, I heard a loud cracking sound. When I turned around it was like watching slow motion and if I were not so scared and shaking, I probably would have yelled “TIMBER”. A thirty foot Australian pine tree that was growing in the canal bank had been uprooted by the wind and came tumbling down close to our house…another mad dash to get back inside.
I was really starting to worry. I was not sure if our house would be able to take much more of this pounding. The winds were coming out of the south and there was a large open field on that side with nothing to protect us from the one hundred-thirty to one hundred-fifty mile an hour winds. I told Ann that we needed to start loading our evacuation items into the SUV just in case we had to leave in a hurry.
The power had gone off several times during the past hour but each time it returned a split second later. Just as I was reaching in the refrigerator for something to drink, the power “blinked” three times in a row and then went off. It looked like this time it was gone for good and now it was really dark and eerie in the house. Once again, Ann proved she was well prepared when she broke out several battery powered lanterns, flashlights, and some large candles. She also had a battery-powered radio, which she turned to one of the local news stations…humm…I wonder if she was ever a Girl Scout.
Since we had no idea how long the power would be off, we spent some time listing the everyday routines that would be affected. At the top of the list were all items that required the use of water. We were on a well, so no electricity meant we could not run the pump or reverse osmosis unit and that equated to no running water.
I had made sure our five-hundred gallon fresh water tank was full so we had plenty of water available, just no way to pump it into the house. We had stockpiled bottled water, which meant we would have more than enough to last through this crisis.
The areas of concern were showers and flushing toilets. The solution turned out to be a simple one. Buckets of water from the pool to flush the toilets and buckets of COLD water from the pool to use in the shower…I still get the shivers every time I think about those early morning showers.
Cooking turned out to be a non-issue since we had a large gas grill and two full tanks of propane. Well, I say it was not an issue but we had forgotten about one thing…my morning coffee! It took us a while to come up with a solution for that one. Our plan was to set up the coffee machine as we did every morning, then I would heat water on the gas grill and pour it over the coffee grounds. Ann was relieved when we solved that problem. Since I am definitely not a morning person, I do not think she wanted to be around me if I had not had at least one cup of coffee.
Everything else was pretty much common sense. We emptied the icemaker bin into a Styrofoam cooler so when the cubes started to melt they would not flood the refrigerator. We planned ahead of time what we were going to remove from the refrigerator or freezer so we could limit the amount and length of time we opened the doors trying to preserve the cold air. Of course, no matter how hard you try, you cannot cover every base but all things considered, I thought we had done a pretty good job so far.
As we were reviewing our list, suddenly we sensed a change of some sort. It took a few minutes to figure out what had happened. The noise level had dropped somewhat and the rain was now hitting the front of the house. That meant only one thing, Charley’s eye was in the process of passing just north of us and the winds were switching from southerly to westerly. Once the eye was northeast of us the wind would be coming out of the north, which meant we would be protected by our neighbor’s house. In any case, we still had to be alert for tornadoes spun off by Charley.
I decided to make another trip outside to see if we had sustained additional damage. When I stepped out onto the lanai, I was surprised to find the noise level had dropped considerably. However, it was a different story when I walked to the south end of our house. As I eased out of the open end of the pool cage, I was almost knocked over by hurricane force winds and the only thing I could hear was the roar coming from Charley’s big mouth.
While I was scanning the neighborhood, I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye. The tree that had fallen in the open field earlier was literally picked up by the now westerly winds and was suddenly forced upright as though it had never fallen. For a short period, I was frozen in place, too scared to even more. If the tree started falling in my direction, it would take me out along with the pool cage, and part of the house. After what seemed like an eternity, the tree continued on its original path, finally splashing into the canal and taking several smaller trees along with it. I could not run for the safety of our house, but I sure walked as fast as my shaky legs would allow…and no, I did not have to change my underwear.
As Charley continued moving inland and the winds switched to northerly, things seemed to settle down somewhat. The noise level had dropped considerably and our ceiling lights had finally stopped dripping into the plastic buckets.
It was time to check to see what was working and what was dead to the world. I started to check our phones but then remembered we had a cordless system that relied on electricity, so they would not function. After some searching, Ann came up with the old standard plug-in phone we used when we first moved into our house. Just as I plugged it into the phone jack, it began to ring and scared the bejeebers out of me. It turned out to be one of our neighbors checking to see if we were okay. Once I got off the phone with our neighbor, I did a quick check of our cell phones and was happy to find they were also working.
We had sandwiches and chips for supper. Since we had used paper plates and cups, cleanup was a snap. Afterward, we listened to the news on the battery-powered radio. The only other options we had for entertainment were books or magazines, but it was difficult reading in the dim candlelight so we decided to turn in early.
Sleeping without air conditioning took some getting used to, we could not open windows because of the wind and rain, which caused our bedroom to be a wee bit on the warm and stuffy side. Needless to say, we had a restless night and we were not in the best of moods when morning rolled around.
We were down to occasional wind gusts and rain showers so I was able to use the gas grill to cook a warm breakfast and make lots of coffee. I was on my third cup when Ann suggested that we “bite the bullet” and take a walk around the outside of our house to check on the damage.
Overall, we were pretty lucky and did not sustain any major damage such as losing the roof. Still, between soffit damage, the pool solar heating, and the pool cage, we estimated the repair costs to be in the range of five thousand dollars. None of that would be covered by insurance due to the six thousand dollar hurricane damage deductible.
After cleaning up debris and making some minor repairs, we decided to see if we could get one of our vehicles out of the garage. We wanted to ride around the immediate area to see how everyone faired. We did not venture far because of all the blocked roads, but we did manage to stumble onto some of the reasons for our power outage.
The more we wandered around, the more we started to see a pattern to the power line and tree damage. It reminded me of the “straight-line” wind damage we used to see in Texas, in that a large quantity of trees and power poles were snapped off five to ten feet from the ground. With the exception of hurricane Andrew, in most of the hurricane damage I had seen, trees and power poles were usually just “pushed” over and I had not seen very many snapped off. I thought that was interesting and worth doing some research after the dust cleared.
We began to encounter more and more roads blocked by debris, so we decided to head back to the house. After seeing all the power line damage, we were pretty sure our power would be out for at least a week.
Life continued without electricity and we were actually beginning to relax and go with the flow. Everyone in the neighborhood was sharing their resources and meals were often eaten at a different house each night.
Although we had all tried to purchase generators, there were none available and consequently, on the third day without power, the frozen food on the top shelves of our upright freezer began to thaw. It was then that our neighbor opted to drive to Tampa to borrow his brother’s portable generator. When he returned, extension cords were run from the generator to three houses to provide us with limited power. Since our house had the largest refrigerator, it was connected to the generator and was to serve as the “common cooler” for all three houses.
We transferred the items located on the lower selves of our upright freezer, which were still frozen to the freezer in our side-by-side refrigerator. I spent the rest of the day in front of our gas grill cooking the thawed items and that evening we invited all our neighbors over for a feast. Everyone enjoyed the food and after dinner, we spent a lot of time just chatting and joking around. It was truly a fun evening. That night, just before we retired, I connected a fan to the generator extension cord, which greatly improved our sleeping conditions.
Eventually we settled into a routine of entertaining the neighbor’s kids, swimming in the pool and making occasional trips to the store for perishable items such as milk, eggs, and fresh produce. We also completed some minor repairs and helped our neighbors correct some of their damage.
We finally had a chance to ride around the area and were amazed at the amount of house damage we were seeing. It was with mixed emotions that we looked at the destroyed homes. We were glad that we did not sustain that much damage to our home, but at the same time we felt guilty for thinking that way…in the end we just felt sorry for all of those homeowners.
On the evening of our fifth day without power, we had our next-door neighbors over for a late dinner. After the dishes were washed and put away, we sat out on our lanai just talking about anything that popped into our minds. The pleasant conversation, the warm balmy air, and the beauty of a starlit night were truly priceless.
As things were winding down, we noticed some street lights flicker on in the distance. Everyone stopped talking and just stared in the direction of the lights, holding our breath, not believing what we were seeing. Suddenly, more lights came on, then more, and more, until finally the lights on the other side of the canal blinked on.
Once it registered the power was back on, once we were sure it was going to stay on, everyone took off running. My neighbors to their house and me to the garage to start flipping circuit breakers to power up our house. Oh, what a wonderful sound hearing the air conditioner kick on and the water pumps start running. We were like kids on Christmas morning, just overjoyed as everything in our house started to come to life. After we had nice warm showers, after we retired to our air-conditioned bedroom, there was no doubt whatsoever, that tonight we would sleep like logs.
Although staying in our house during hurricane Charley was probably not the smartest thing we have done, I have to admit it was an exciting adventure. At the same time, five days without electricity allowed us to enjoy a much simpler lifestyle without the internet and television. It brought all our neighbors together like a large family. It was like stepping back in time.
As Ann and I were having our morning coffee, we were talking about how glad we were that things were beginning to get back to normal. However, the more we thought about it, the more we were undecided if getting back to normal was really a good thing…we had not seen any of our neighbors for over two days.
Every once in a while you take a picture of something just because it looks neat, but when you get it home you find something you didn’t see when you snapped the picture, something unique. Take for instance, the image of a small tree I captured after the hurricane had passed through. Now, I might be the only one that sees it and I just may be a wee bit overly dramatic…but…when I look at the area where the limb broke away, I see the shape of a heart, a broken heart, caused when that “blowhard” Charley visited one day.
Another great adventure comes to an end. It doesn’t get any better than this…well, unless you’re talking about winning the Indianapolis 500 while driving a Volkswagen “beetle”. That might just be a step up from this story.
I guess as we travel the road of life, we can never be really sure which way the road will turn…one thing’s for certain though, if you’re going to entertain longwinded visitors make sure you have enough power to last through the ordeal.
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